Reflections on the Role of Creative Writing in the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

We seem to learn more, almost hour by hour, about what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. I’ll spare you all my thoughts and associations, but for writers who teach, there’s one aspect of this story that simply must be addressed.

I ran across the name “Lucinda Roy” twice yesterday. In the morning, I read Ms. Roy’s eloquent op-ed in the New York Times. And later, I read news reports, like this one at, detailing how alarming the gunman’s creative writing had been.

After having the young man’s work brought to her attention, says the CNN report, Roy, former English department chairwoman at Virginia Tech and co-director of its creative writing program, “went to the police and counselors ‘and everywhere else, and they would say, but there’s nothing explicit here. He’s not actually saying he’s going to kill someone.'”

Frankly, if selfishly, I wish the op-ed had addressed this piece of the story, too.

Why? Because those news reports about the student’s writing brought back a memory. It’s hazy now–I can’t supply the details. But it involves my alerting my writing program supervisor about what I viewed as alarming elements of a student’s fiction writing in a summer school workshop. Counselors were contacted. And the student raged at me, both semi-silently and gloweringly in class, and in words, when the time came for my end-of-course evaluations.

But I’m not sorry I signaled her work to my supervisor. I’d rather risk being “wrong”–and/or suffering a bad evaluation (which is actually pretty serious business within this particular writing program, but that’s a subject for another post on another day)–than taking the risk of silence.

It’s a difficult balance to try to maintain, especially when students are writing fictional plays, or short stories (or poems, which despite what some people may believe, are not always first-person “confessional”), and we must respect the forms. We must refrain some assuming that what’s on the page is autobiographical.

But sometimes, as Lucinda Roy recognized, you just have to speak out. And then, you have to find people who can and will do more than simply listen to you. They have to act, too.

Any of you practicing-writers-who-teach have other thoughts on this?